Legendary Long Beach swimmer Greta Andersen dies at 95

The Long Beach aquatics world lost an all-time great athlete and mentor with the death of Olympian Greta Andersen last month, at the age of 95.

Anderson had been living in Solvang for the last several years and her Feb. 6 death was recently publicized by the International Swimming Hall of Fame, which she was a member of. Andersen’s influence was so great that the ISHOF honored her with an additional Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015, more than half a century after her hall induction. Andersen was also an inaugural inductee into the Long Beach Century Club’s Hall of Fame in the 1950s.

“She was an Olympian already when she arrived in Long Beach, and her impact here both as a swimmer and as a teacher were huge,” said local aquatics guru Rich Foster, the former vice president of World Aquatics, the international governing body for aquatic sports.

Andersen was born May 1, 1927, and immigrated to Long Beach in 1953 from her native Denmark. She was already a gold and silver medalist from the 1948 Olympics, where she swam the 100-meter distance events.

While at the London Olympics in 1948, she had to be rescued from drowning after an injection her coach gave her to delay her period caused temporary paralysis in her legs and caused her to faint in the water.

After coming to Long Beach, she obtained American citizenship and married her second husband, John Sonnichsen. She also put aside the confines of the 100-meter pool and took on the ocean, earning international acclaim as the first swimmer of either gender to swim a “back and forth lap” in a major channel, doing a round trip from Long Beach to Catalina and back, which took her 27 hours.

She set several marathon swimming world records at the 10-, 25- and 50-mile distances and crossed the English Channel six times in the 1950s and 1960s. She would make the Long Beach/Catalina swim three more times in her life and never lost to another woman in any race she swam in open water, usually beating all the men as well.

A star in and out of the water, Andersen’s shining personality made her a media darling, and she piled up the winnings from open water contests, eventually retiring from competition as the largest money-earner in women’s professional swimming history.

Her impact was not only as an athlete, however. She founded the Greta Andersen Swim School in Los Alamitos in 1960, and for decades she taught Long Beach’s kids how to swim, either there or in lessons on the Los Alamitos Air Force Base.

Foster said his kids were among the thousands who learned to swim under her expert tutelage. Andersen was an early practitioner of the idea that babies could learn to swim, or at least self-rescue in the water.

“She would teach kids that were 3, 4, 5 months old, and she’d throw them in the water and teach them to float,” said Foster. “The kids would start crying, and the mothers would come over and say, ‘Oh my baby’s crying.’ And she’d look at them and say, ‘Look, they can cry now, or you can cry later.’ She was really tough—but she taught thousands of kids to swim before they were a year old.”

After closing the Greta Andersen Swim School following decades of instruction, Andersen retired to Solvang, where she was living when she died in February.

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